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1984 World Premiere

Royal Opera House

1984

THE CAST were singing, "We are the dead", but as I looked around me surely it was the audience that was in that terminal condition. Some were in such a state of shock that they stopped coughing, probably because they thought they would choke themselves, intentionally or not.

Rarely do I come away from Covent Garden disappointed, but here I was amazed that the grand ole opera house had actually staged this mess. Conductor Lorin Maazel - at 75 he should know better - wanted to write an opera and George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four was his chosen subject. We, unfortunately, were the ones he inflicted it upon. Apparently Maazel put £400,000 of his own money into this production. He should have given it to me; I would have spent it more wisely.

Oceania is a totalitarian state that is in a constant war with Eurasia. London has become Airstrip One, its people are subservient, dissenters are prisoners and sex is condemned - "to chastity, to chastity".

Thought Police

Orwell, a socialist who abhorred the British Empire's rule in Asia and as a police officer was more than an onlooker to atrocities in Burma, disliked what he saw from the communists in the Spanish Civil War and even less of what was going on around him in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Nineteen-Eighty-Four was as much a polemic as it was a novel. It is now a metaphor for totalitarianism, as is Newspeak and Thought Police. Orwell's fears were not realised in his beloved England and, just five years after 1984, the walls started crumbling all over eastern Europe.

One of the places where Orwell's prophesy was played out until recently was Iraq (for telescreens of Big Brother see pictures of Saddam on every wall in Baghdad), and look at the stick you get when you try to remove a dictator and bring down a one-party, oppressive state. Not that Iraq was far away in this production. The brutally treated Eurasian prisoners - one is left midstage hanging by the neck - were wearing bright orange dungarees reminiscent of those at Abu Ghraib. Perhaps the pendulum has swung and it is the US that now fills the role of Orwell's fears - but then, Oceania's currency is the dollar.

Carl Fillion's circular, turning stage design worked well, although at times it was a bit cramped. The slogans - "War is Peace", "Freedom is Slavery" and "Ignorance is Strength" - and the party's "achievements" were flashed brightly over the curved walls. Robert Lepage's direction can barely be faulted; the torture of Winston Smith proved harrowing, especially when he was in Room 101 trying to avoid the rats, an animal that was a feature of Orwell's days as an aspiring writer in Paris - of course, then he was called Eric Blair. But the music was all over the place.

There's a saying that goalkeepers become goalkeepers because they can't play football. I believe that conductors become conductors because they cannot compose. There have been some exceptions, but like Mozart, Beethoven and Pierre Boulez, these are composers first and conductors second, and generally they conducted their own work to get the right interpretation. Maazel does not come into that category and what we got here was an opera in search of one decent tune.

Nod to Oliver!

It started with a nod towards Messiaen and Schönberg and then evolved into jazz, barber shop quartets, the blues and Lionel Bart. When a group of children entered the stage in the first act I thought there must have been a performance of Oliver! close by and they walked into the wrong theatre. When there did seem to be an inkling of a tune, in the love scene between Winston and Julia, the lid was soon put on it.

The libretto was not much better. This was written by JD McClathchy and Thomas Meehan, the latter who has a track record in musicals and boy did it show. Now I have a thing about operas. Call me foolish but I think the words should be sung. Sure some of the best operas have recitatives to take the story forward. Mozart could barely do without them, but opera was still a developing art in the late 18th century. Richard Strauss just about gets away with having dialogue, although Ariadne auf Naxos would be far better without it. 1984, though, was at times nothing more than a musical. If you can't sing a libretto, then bloody well write one you can. What with Jeremy Irons's telescreen voice of Big Brother making its constant interruptions, this was more Radio 4 than Radio 3.

Poor old Simon Keenlyside (Winston Smith) looked like he yearned for the days, not so long a go, when he was flinging himself about the same stage as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. But he is convincing and remains one of opera's best actors. Nancy Gustafson as Julia also sounded uncomfortable, but not as bad as Lawrence Brownlee (Syme) and Graeme Danby (Charrington), who would have done their careers a greater service by joining the cast of The Producers.

The two cast members who seemed to be enjoying themselves were Diana Damrau, who first as the gym instructor brought the audience out of their comas and then, as the flame-haired drunk, possibly became the first person ever on the Opera House stage to shout the immortal words "fucking bastards!" (although as Elton John has performed there, I would not lay odds) and Richard Margison, as the sinister party superior O'Brien.

Too long

The opera was originally due to last three-and-a-half hours, intervals included, but this, thankfully, was clipped to three hours. The first act alone lasted for more than 100 minutes. So excruciating was it that it made the two-and-half hours in one sitting of Das Rheingold seem like a 30-minute comedy.

The performances settled down a bit after a rather bizarre, unannounced three-minute break on the hour mark of the first act when members of the audience got out their seats, went to the toilet or walked around stretching their legs like it was a drinks break at Lord's. Some even re-took their seats after the performance had resumed. I can only assume they were in a daze, as must have been the Opera House's usually authoritarian red coats. Perhaps this was where the missing 30 minutes went, and boy what we would have given for an interval at that stage.

The duet between Winston and Julia, who had met in the Ministry of Truth where they were involved in changing already published information so that Big Brother and the party were always seen to be right, was the highlight. But the awkwardness of the libretto and music ensured that it was never going to be expressed with the passion of those other troubled lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. They should have just ripped off each other's clothes and got on with it, which would have been more like the novel.

The second act at less than 50 minutes had more coherence. Winston and Julia were both brainwashed into loving Big Brother and ratting on each other, quite literally in the case of Smith when he screams "set the rats on Julia".

They meet again one year later in a café where Winston drinks gin and Julia just "gets by". They both have been so worn down that all they care about is themselves and no one else. "The truth is," sings Julia, "you want it to happen to him. It's not a matter of giving in. All you care about is yourself."

Maazel's opera fails to provide any new insights and could have been a bit more daring by saying who, in 2005, we should fear. Who is Big Brother, who are the Thought Police and who is practicing Newspeak? As an American, perhaps he did not want to go down that route. Still, I have now read the book, seen the film and heard the opera. All that's left is the T-shirt.

Official 1984 website.

Review by Peter Wilson


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